(My daughter in her younger days)
My daughter is currently struggling through her pre-teen years. While my son seemed to sail, untouched, through middle school, my daughter is like the poster-child for stereotypical made-for-movie 7th grade. There are cliques and popular kids and snotty kids and bullies. There's name-calling and gossip and enough meanness to make the bus ride your proverbial hell.
She craves belonging. She wants the right clothes, the pretty hair, the perfect skin, the athletic ability and smooth social skills that make it seem so easy for everyone else. I can't tell if she wants to stand out in a good way or just blend in, but what she doesn't want is to be a target. She doesn't want to be different. There are times in life when uniqueness is prized, but not in middle school. Not among her classmates, anyway.
She can't believe that I understand this, that I, too, struggle with this same thing. Since finishing up school, I've begun looking for a home for some of my stronger short stories. Lit magazines are something I've never really explored before. Until the last two years I probably had never even cracked one open.
But now I am reading, both the fiction in them and the guidelines for submission. Nearly every one says, "Get a feel for what we publish before sending in something. Make sure your work fits in. We strongly suggest you read a few back issues of our magazine before submitting."
I get it. You don't want to send a horror story to a family-oriented parenting magazine. But lit mags... I mean, mostly they just publish run-of-the-mill literary short stories.
What does it mean to fit in? Do I have to stop writing like me, in my own voice and style, and start conforming to the masses? Okay, I've read a bunch of stories now and what I can tell is that none of them - across the board - are like mine. I find them snoozy, mostly. Lots of narrative, little action, little dialogue. There are a few truly unique ones out there, but not just a little unique - I mean radically experimental.
But none like mine.
And shouldn't that be good? Shouldn't it be the way agents for novels are crying out for unique voices, for something that sounds different?
So why isn't it?
I don't have the answers, anymore than I can answer my daughter why it isn't okay in her school to be unique.
What I tell her, every day, is to be true to herself. Not to be what others want her to be, but to be who she is, wholly and entirely.
It's good advice for life. I hope it's good for writing, too.